What does the future hold for the gym sector?

Jon Johnston is the Managing Director of Matrix Fitness UK, one of the UK’s leading suppliers of fitness equipment. He has helped grow the commercial division of the business from £3m to over £31m in under 8 years. Jon has a long track record working in many different parts of the fitness industry. Amongst other roles, he has served as the UK Managing Director of Stairmaster, the Commercial Division manager of Forza Fitness, and the Commercial Director of GYM-TV.

In this interview we speak to Jon about the rise of the budget gym sector, and what the future holds for the gym market as a whole.

How do you feel about the relatively recent move away from cardio and towards free weights?

From a fitness purists’ point of view, I’m really glad that there are more racks, pulleys, free weights and kettlebells in gyms, but I do have some concerns about some of those items when it comes to safety, because correct technique is so important. But the need for higher-level support and supervision creates a good opportunity for personal trainers.

As an industry we must invest more in education, continued training and development for both the gym staff and the customers. It’s also important for the trainers to have a network of professionals that they can interact with and share knowledge with, and continue to grow their own expertise based on science, not fads. It’s also very important that they know when they should refer a customer to another health professional.

One of the best ways to manage chronic lifestyle conditions is physical activity, including resistance and balance training. Gyms could be promoting those benefits more by endorsing the positive changes that happen inside your body when you exercise, instead of just focusing on people’s physical appearances and being ‘buff’. It’s a shame that some people are becoming sick simply because they’re not moving enough and not eating enough of the right things.


How do you think the gym sector will change over the next 5 years?

John Treharne, CEO of The Gym Group, said the budget sector is just getting started, and I think he’s right. But I’m keen to see that the industry doesn’t just open more nice gyms and keep rotating the same 13 or 14% of people who are already ‘gym-converts’ around them. We need more market penetration – more people coming into the fitness market and exercising.

Budget gyms are a great way to get people started in fitness, and the membership stats seem to confirm that a higher proportion of their members are new to gyms. So rather than competing for the same people, we need to focus on growing the customer base. If one day some of those people decide they want additional services that the budget gym doesn’t offer, maybe a swimming pool or post-workout cappuccino, they can join a different kind of club.

It’s interesting to see gyms embracing outdoor fitness much more, and encouraging their members to take part in boot-camps, training for other activities like bike rides, triathlons and assault courses – challenges that keep their customers focused and motivated.

I strongly support fitness programs that are properly periodised and have seasonal variations. It’s actually okay to go to the gym for just 6 months of the year if you’re doing something outdoors the rest of the time. Some operators are already developing this, by making the gym a ‘wellbeing centre’ or a sports and fitness ‘hub’ – more than just a destination to go to for training.


So how do you see things changing from a training point of view?

With regards to programming and workout periodization, I think our industry needs to be more sophisticated in some areas of programming, and simpler in others. Executing just four or five exercises really well can get superior results for the vast majority.

The Soviet Russian’s had a principle that you can get really strong all round by focusing on just a few compound exercises such as kettle-bell cleans or snatches. Having done a degree in sports science, it is nice to see that applied science and athletic performance techniques are filtering back into the market; and sports science is coming to the fore, it’s taken 30 years or so but I hope we will see more advances.

Customers do seem to be getting more educated – mainly because of the accessibility of information on the web. We will see information technology really taking off in our industry too – consoles, wearable tech, workout tracking and data collection. It’s great to be able to log into a console on a machine and record your own data.

All tech is converging and the eco-system is expanding exponentially. In 1996 Bill Gates predicted much of this in his book ‘The Road Ahead’; for example, your pocket PC (phone) having biometric scanning capability, GPS etc. As Artificial Intelligence (AI) develops, just imagine how new information technology will spin-off to influence health and fitness in the near future!


How has your business been impacted by the explosive growth in the budget gym sector?

We’ve been lucky enough to work with the three biggest brands in the UK’s budget gym sector – Well, it’s partly luck and partly almost a decade of hard work from the Matrix team.

Both in the UK and elsewhere, the Matrix brand has benefited hugely from the growth in that market. The budget sector really began to grow around late 2008 when the recession was taking hold in the UK. We positioned Matrix as a ‘challenger brand’; this helped us to become prominent because the buyers were actively looking for alternative suppliers, and better value than before.

In the depths of the recession it was hard for start-up gyms to get asset finance in place without some onerous terms and conditions, so we created some really innovative financial solutions, offering the right products and support at the right time.

There’s a clearly an opportunity for operators offering ‘premium economy’; and the bigger companies like Pure Gym, The Gym Group and Xercise4Less are creating a high quality experience and challenging the industry to evolve. The idea that budget gyms are only ‘low-cost’ or more affordable alternatives to the mid market is only partly true; there’s actually much more to their proposition.

By the way, we have significantly grown our market share in all sectors within the last three years so we’ve stopped getting that objection, and have also done a lot of work to reinforce our premium brand position too.

One strong trend we’re seeing now is similar to what happened in the motor-vehicle industry; customers are starting to gain a better understanding of the residual value in gym equipment, meaning more customers are looking more closely at lifetime cost of ownership and the re-sale value of their equipment.


What do you think the interior of a gym will look like in 10 years’ time?

Gyms won’t be uniform; there will be a huge amount of variation in what they offer.

Sleeker equipment

Equipment will probably be a lot sleeker due to advances in the ability to miniaturise electronic components, and material science allowing structures to be strong but sleek – (techniques such as hydro-forming), and there’ll be more flatscreen tech on everything, assuming it’s not replaced by some kind of ‘eyewear’ or similar appliance

More personalised equipment

Equipment will be even more personalised and sophisticated from a workout tracking point of view, and there will be biosensors and movement analysis (possibly with 3D scanner and depth sensors), as well as more inbuilt sensors for tracking the faults and wear and tear on machines.

High tech vs. Old school

Some gyms will be very sleek, chic and high tech whereas others will definitely go even more old school. I recently visited a Parkour gym in East London, and it reminded me of training camp a circus – I loved it because it was purely designed for function not looks.

‘Built-in’ fitness equipment

More design will go into elements like the flooring, and there will be more demarcation, lighting and technology in flooring as standard. Functional elements will be built into the design and architecture. We’re already starting to see this – our Connexus product bolts into the wall. This leads me to think – does the equipment have to be separate piece of kit or could it be integrated into building?

Old school training isn’t going anywhere

Of course there will continue to be a lot of retro free weights, and heavy iron type-equipment. I find it most ironic that when I was young some of my mates left school to work in heavy industry, mining, engineering, oil-rigs etc, and were getting paid to use heavy tools (the ultimate in functional training). 30 years later… you can pay someone  £25 an hour for the privilege of hitting things with hammers or flipping tyres! It will be interesting to see what happens as societal needs force changes in our workplaces, homes and then the fitness industry. I think the industry will keep growing because we evolved to move and its needed for a healthy mind and body- so let’s keep people moving!


Posted in Gyms & Clubs, Interviews, The Fitness Network.